Barnwell’s 2019 NFL free-agency and trade grades

Welcome to 2019 NFL free agency. I’m grading the most notable offseason moves — signings and trades — below, so come back throughout the month for updates as deals get completed.

The most recent grades and write-ups are at the top, and the first grade goes all the way back to Feb. 7, when the Cardinals added cornerback Robert Alford.

Keep in mind that I’m not grading deals until we get a clearer picture of the money involved. So if you don’t see a grade for a deal that has been reported, check back in later.

Jump to a big move:
NYG-CLE trade | DEN-WSH trade | OT Smith

Friday, March 8

Browns get: DE Olivier Vernon, 4-132
Giants get: G Kevin Zeitler, 5-155
Browns grade: C
Giants grade: B-

It’s difficult to judge this trade in a vacuum, in part because each team made a decision before this swap that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. If you accept that the Browns decided to deal Zeitler and the Giants planned to trade Vernon, this swap makes a lot of sense for both parties. If you question the broader logic, though, I might not be as enthused.

From Cleveland’s perspective, general manager John Dorsey has broken up a line that was very impressive during the second half of the season for Baker Mayfield. Zeitler was one of the league’s highest-paid guards and had a $12.4 million cap hold for 2019, but he also was an excellent two-way interior lineman who hadn’t missed a game in four years. The former Bengals standout did commit a career-high six penalties last season, but ask Cincinnati fans how much they miss the duo of Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth since they left in the spring of 2017. The Bengals’ offense has ground to a halt thanks to offensive line woes (and injuries) over the past two seasons.

Now, suddenly, Mayfield’s line is a major question mark. Starting left tackle Greg Robinson, whose deal is farther down in this file, has an addiction to holding penalties. The Browns will unquestionably replace Zeitler with 2018 second-rounder Austin Corbett, who played 14 offensive snaps as a rookie. Could Corbett turn out to be a useful player? Of course. Is it worth trading away an excellent guard to find out? It seems like a risky proposition, especially given that the Browns hardly need cap space. The idea of having Corbett as depth for the inevitable offensive line injuries every team deals with during a season seems more appealing than moving an upper-echelon lineman to get him into the lineup.

Cleveland did need to add a second pass-rusher to pair with Myles Garrett, and trading for Vernon allows the former Dolphins standout to move back into a 4-3 base defense under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Vernon hasn’t racked up gaudy sack numbers during his career, but his knockdown totals have made him a bit of an analytics darling, including the 36-hit season in 2015 that helped get him a five-year, $85 million deal in free agency.

The 28-year-old Vernon went through a lost half-season in 2018 after suffering a high ankle sprain, which has sunk pass-rushers like Ezekiel Ansah for months at a time in years past. He seemed like an obvious cap casualty at the halfway point of the season, but Vernon played like a superstar over the final six weeks of the season. The new Browns end generated six sacks and 15 knockdowns over the final six weeks, with the latter mark ranking fourth in the NFL in that span.

If Cleveland gets that sort of production out of Vernon, they’ll win this deal. I wouldn’t quite count on that, but a healthy Vernon will see one-on-one matchups across from Garrett and should be good for a sack every other week, which makes him an above-average edge rusher. He’s not really a consistently stout run defender, which could hurt a Browns team that ranked 25th in the league in run defense DVOA last season, but Vernon isn’t a liability in that role, either. His arrival also moves Emmanuel Ogbah into a rotational role as the third defensive end, which is probably a better fit for his level of ability. The Browns might rue moving on from Carl Nassib, who looked a lot better in Tampa than he did in Cleveland, but their defensive line will be better once this trade is confirmed.

The issue here, though, is that we’re entering an offseason where the draft is full of edge-rushing talent. Even after the franchise tag picked off a handful of talented defensive ends, there are going to be plenty of options available to teams who want to add pass-rushers. Is Vernon at a base salary of $15.5 million better than adding, say, Michael Bennett (who is reportedly on the trade/release block) and Terrell Suggs for the same price? Would the Browns have been better off trading for Justin Houston, who wouldn’t have cost anywhere near as much in terms of compensation? I understand wanting to add an edge rusher, and Vernon is a good one, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to trade Zeitler to get one in this market.

It should be no surprise, on the other hand, that Giants GM Dave Gettleman made a move for an offensive lineman. There aren’t any plug-and-play starters in free agency at guard besides Rodger Saffold, and if the Giants didn’t think they were going to get the Rams standout, pivoting to Zeitler makes a lot of sense. The cap is a far more pressing concern for Big Blue, and Zeitler’s $10 million base salary might prevent them from paying a similar amount to former Gettleman draftee Daryl Williams to come play right tackle, but Zeitler fills in a spot that was occupied by Patrick Omameh and Jamon Brown last season.

It’s a major upgrade, and while Gettleman’s plan to construct a 1970s-era offense around the running game while paying Eli Manning more than 12 percent of his salary cap is brutally flawed, building around a great offensive line is reasonable enough. I’m not sure the Giants get there by adding Zeitler, especially given how badly Nate Solder regressed in New York last season, but they’re a much more talented line with Zeitler than without him.

On the other hand, a defense that wasn’t exactly crammed with pass-rushing talent just lost its best edge defender. After Vernon, the team’s most productive pass-rushers were defensive tackle B.J. Hill and second-year linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who is now penciled in to take over as one of the starting outside linebackers in James Bettcher’s defense. The Giants ranked 31st in adjusted sack rate last season, and they just traded away the only thing protecting them from the 32nd-ranked Raiders.

The good news for the Giants is what I mentioned earlier: They should be able to find pass-rushing help, either in free agency or with one of their draft picks. If the Kyler Murray rumors turn out to be true, they could suddenly be in great shape with the sixth pick. The names who keep popping up at the top of the draft include two quarterbacks (Murray and Dwayne Haskins), a dominant defensive tackle (Quinnen Williams), and three edge rushers (Nick Bosa, Josh Allen and Montez Sweat). Todd McShay’s most recent mock draft has offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor and edge rusher Rashan Gary coming off of the board at seven and eight after the Giants pick, too.

The Giants need players at all those positions, which means that they should be in a great spot to add their quarterback of the future, an impact defensive lineman or a right tackle at six. They had to trade down one round in the middle of the draft to get this done, which is a slight demerit, but they added a great player at a position of need by giving up a player at a position where there will be options this offseason. It’s easier to make sense of their side on this one.

Cardinals get: OT Marcus Gilbert
Steelers get: 2019 sixth-round pick
Cardinals grade: B+
Steelers grade: C+

This trade will likely be for the Cardinals’ compensatory pick, which comes in at No. 207. The Steelers once drafted the immaculately named Cap Bozo with the 207th pick, but given that they were likely to release Gilbert if a trade partner didn’t arise, this is essentially a salary dump. Matt Feiler, who started nine games at right tackle a year ago, will likely compete with 2018 third-rounder Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job in camp for a Steelers team that lost legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the Broncos this offseason.

The Cardinals badly needed offensive line help at just about every spot, and while Justin Pugh might have been able to kick out and play right tackle, Arizona will pencil in Gilbert as its starting right tackle for Week 1. The Cards won’t be using a pen here for injury reasons, as Gilbert has missed 23 games over the past four seasons thanks to a suspension and injuries to his knee, ankle and hamstring. Gilbert will make $4.9 million in the final year of his contract, which is a risk worth taking for Arizona.

Thursday, March 7

Washington gets: QB Case Keenum (on a restructured deal), 2020 seventh-round pick
Broncos get: 2020 sixth-round pick
Washington grade: C
Broncos grade: C+

Denver general manager John Elway had little leverage with Keenum after trading for Joe Flacco last month. The Broncos already had guaranteed $7 million of Keenum’s $18 million base salary in 2019, and while no team was going to take on that extra $11 million in a trade, moving on from their 2018 starter would have reduced Denver’s liability this upcoming season.

By trading Keenum in lieu of releasing him, the Broncos will realize a small cash savings. The offsets on Keenum’s deal mean the team would only have realized a financial or cap savings if another team was willing to offer the 31-year-old more than $7 million for 2019, which seems unlikely. If we assume no team was willing to make that sort of offer, teams would instead just offer the minimum and allow the Broncos to assume the majority of the money owed Keenum, who would get the same amount of cash in his pocket either way. The veteran minimum for Keenum would have been $800,000 or so, meaning the Broncos would have been on the hook for $6.2 million if they had released Keenum.

Instead, with Keenum’s blessing, the Broncos restructured his deal and paid their incumbent $500,000 to forgo the $11 million in unguaranteed money for 2019. The Broncos will be on the hook for that $500,000 and $3.5 million of Keenum’s $7 million base salary, while Washington will take on the other $3.5 million. The pick swap of a sixth-round pick for a seventh-rounder in 2020 is of little consequence. The Broncos were getting rid of Keenum either way; making this move saves them about $2.2 million.

It’s a more curious move for Washington, who theoretically could have waited for the Broncos to cut Keenum and picked him up in the free-agent market for the minimum. Instead, it paid a premium of $2.7 million or so to acquire Keenum now, which suggests it was worried somebody else was going to beat it to the punch and trade for Keenum, or that Keenum would have a more attractive suitor in unrestricted free agency.

I’m not sure there was one, if only because Washington represents Keenum’s best chance at a starting job. If Nick Foles goes to Jacksonville as expected when free agency begins, well, there just aren’t going to be any starting jobs open. Every other team either has a veteran incumbent or a young player they’re committed to starting, and that’s before we figure out where draft picks Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) and Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) are going to end up.

It’s possible that a team such as the Dolphins or Giants could cut their starting quarterback and go for Keenum as a bridge option, but this was the best opportunity left as the market currently stands, which is why Keenum was willing to forgo the open market and take that $10.5 million pay cut to go to Washington.

Washington fans might not be particularly excited about the idea of heading into 2019 with Keenum and Colt McCoy as their options at starting quarterback, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jay Gruden & Co. made another move at the position. They don’t have the cap space to add anyone with a significant salary, but I wouldn’t count out a move up for someone like Haskins if Gruden thinks he’s a franchise passer. Second-tier passers such as Drew Lock (Missouri) and Daniel Jones (Duke) also could be in the discussion. If Washington drafts a passer in one of the first two rounds in April, Keenum and McCoy could be competing for a roster spot as opposed to the starting quarterback’s job.

Keenum isn’t going to excite a frustrated Washington fan base, but he does raise the floor for a Washington team that was 6-3 last season before Alex Smith broke his leg. McCoy made it through only one start before fracturing his fibula against the Eagles, which ended up forcing Washington to turn to replacement-level options Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson over the remainder of the season. Keenum isn’t going to be the passer we saw in 2017, but he’s also not a replacement-level quarterback. Sixteen games from Keenum and McCoy should be better than 16 games from McCoy, Sanchez and Johnson.

The deal: Three years, $18 million
Grade: C

This is a curious move for a Ravens team that just invested first- (Hayden Hurst) and third-round picks (Mark Andrews) at tight end last year. Andrews was more productive in Year 1, racking up more receiving yards (552) than Boyle (213) and Hurst (163) combined. It feels like he has earned a starting role in the lineup as the move to tight end.

With Boyle now getting $6 million per season, that suddenly seems to leave Hurst as the odd man out, which doesn’t make sense. The former Pirates minor-leaguer was an over-aged draftee and will turn 26 in August, so the Ravens can’t exactly stash Hurst and wait for him to develop. Hurst underwent foot surgery in August and had a screw in his foot for the entire 2018 season. John Harbaugh said he was expecting big things from both his young tight ends at the combine.

Boyle fits in as the best run blocker of the three, which is going to matter in an offense built around Lamar Jackson. His role didn’t markedly increase once Jackson entered the lineup, though; he played just less than 54 percent of the offensive snaps with Joe Flacco at quarterback and a little more than 56 percent of the snaps with the rookie under center.

Over that time frame, the Ravens came out with three or more tight ends on 15.5 percent of their snaps, the third-highest rate in the league, but they weren’t very effective on those plays. Baltimore cost itself an average of 0.3 expected points per snap with three tight ends once Jackson took over, the fifth-worst offensive rate in the league.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out on Twitter that Boyle was in high demand from other teams as a blocking tight end. He’s a useful player. Blocking tight ends typically don’t get this sort of money, though, and there are other players in the market — Michael Hoomanawanui comes to mind — who offer above-average blocking ability at what will likely be a fraction of the cost. It’s difficult to see how the Ravens are going to parse out snaps at tight end in a way that would make the investments they’ve made at this position over the past 12 months make sense.

Tuesday, March 5

The deal: Three years, $41.3 million with $27 million guaranteed
Grade: B-

Smith might have become the most anonymous member of the NFL’s eight-digit club, as Tampa Bay avoided a possible franchise tag by signing their 2015 second-round pick. Given how Tampa structures its contracts, we can say pretty confidently this is a two-year guaranteed pact with a team option for 2021. Given that the franchise tag would have cost Tampa $14.1 million, the team is getting a slight discount by guaranteeing Smith a second season in that same ballpark.

Does Smith belong alongside players such as Trent Williams and Russell Okung, whose extensions all have a similar average annual salary? Depends on what you value. Smith hasn’t looked like a dominant left tackle, but on an offense that has been wildly inconsistent, he has been stable.

According to STATS LLC tracking, Smith has given up either five or 5.5 sacks in three of his four seasons as a pro, with a zero-sack campaign in 2016 as the lone exception. Smith committed 13 penalties that season, but he has brought down that total to eight in 2017 and six last season. His best asset might simply be availability: Smith has played 4,142 of Tampa’s 4,171 offensive snaps since being drafted in 2015.

He doesn’t turn 26 until June, and in a league in which teams are starving for competent offensive line play, a young, league-average left tackle was going to get paid if he hit the free market. This deal allows Smith to avoid the franchise tag before hitting the free-agent market again at age 29, which is a nice win for the Penn State product. Tampa gets security on its quarterback’s blindside for two years, regardless of whether it sticks with Jameis Winston after 2019 or replaces him with a new passer. Both parties can feel like they won a bit here.

The deal: Two years, $9 million
Grade: C

Through the first quarter of the 2018 season, it looked like the 31-year-old Hunt was embarking on a stunning career season for the Colts. The Estonian racked up four sacks and nine tackles for loss through the first four weeks of the season, at which point he missed a game with a knee injury. After the Colts returned from their Week 6 bye, Hunt stopped stuffing the scoresheet, with the Bengals draftee picking up just one sack and four tackles for loss over the final nine games of the season.

Given that Hunt had shown no propensity for morphing into the Eastern European J.J. Watt at any point in his career before or after September 2018, it’s fair to suggest that the hottest month of his life was probably an outlier. You can understand why the Colts would want to bring Hunt back for another year as part of their defensive line rotation, but in a draft flush with defensive line talent, it’s fair to wonder whether Indy should have looked for a longer-term solution. Hunt’s $9 million deal isn’t going to break the bank for a team with more than $100 million in cap space, but it’s also giving snaps to a player who isn’t likely to be a difference-maker.

Friday, March 1

The deal: Three years, $40 million
Grade: C+

For the second straight offseason, the Eagles have managed to keep a key defender who looked sure to leave town. It was linebacker Nigel Bradham last year. When a huge market didn’t develop for the former Bills linebacker, Philly swooped in and re-signed Bradham to a five-year, $40 million deal. Bradham’s deal was more realistically a one-year, $5.9 million pact with a series of team options, but general manager Howie Roseman found a way to retain a key part of Jim Schwartz’s defense.

It’s even more impressive that they’ve managed to keep around Graham, who comes at a much larger price. The former first-round pick signed a three-year, $40 million deal, a comfortable raise on the four-year, $26 million pact he signed before the 2015 season. Keeping Graham around ensures that the Eagles can build their defensive end rotation around the Michigan product, Michael Bennett, and 2017 first-rounder Derek Barnett, with Chris Long‘s future still unclear.

The difference between these two pacts is that Bradham’s contract came days into the free agent negotiating period, when the Eagles had a good idea of who they were and were not going to be able to keep. Graham’s contract comes two weeks before free agency, and by making this move now, the Eagles are probably going to be forced to make moves to create more cap room for their defensive end. Tim Jernigan has already been released. Nelson Agholor is at risk.

As for Graham, this deal might represent an overpay. The 30-year-old was long underrated around the league, including by this very organization, which only pushed him into the starting lineup on a regular basis during his sixth season in the league. He is a stout run defender on the edge, but he hasn’t been the sort of pass-rusher who would typically come away with this sort of contract. Over his four years as a starter, Graham has averaged 6.4 sacks and 14.3 knockdowns per season, which is right in line with guys such as Preston Smith and Clay Matthews, who probably aren’t getting this sort of deal in free agency.

Eagles fans might rightfully point out that Graham is part of a rotation that might prevent him from racking up better numbers, and there’s some truth to that. He has played 68.6 percent of Philadelphia’s snaps over the past two seasons. It’s also an issue, though, when you’re paying a player who isn’t on the field every down the sort of money he is getting from the Eagles on this deal. Graham would have found a contract like on this on the free market, but it might not be the right deal for the Eagles given how they use defensive ends and their needs elsewhere on the roster.

Monday, Feb. 25

The deal: One year, $7 million
Grade: D+

On its face, you might see a great deal here. Robinson, who hadn’t lived up to expectations since being drafted with the second overall pick by the Rams in 2014, unquestionably had the best half-season of his career with the Browns. After undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison struggled and missed the Week 9 game against the Chiefs with an illness, Robinson took over at left tackle and stabilized the weakest point on Cleveland’s line. According to Stats LLC tracking, Robinson didn’t allow a single sack across eight starts and 463 offensive snaps. That’s exciting.

The problem, on the other hand, is that Robinson kept seeing yellow. He wasn’t flagged in his debut start against the Chiefs, but the Auburn product was penalized 10 times over the final seven games of the season. Does that sound like a lot? It’s a lot.

To put that in context, nobody else in the NFL had more penalties from Weeks 10-17 than Robinson. Over that time period, Robinson committed nine holding penalties and nobody else in the league picked up more than five. On a per-snap basis over the entire season, Robinson was the most-penalized offensive player in football with 400 snaps from scrimmage or more, racking up penalties once every 46.3 snaps. The second-most penalized offensive player was Harrison.

I wonder if the Browns are setting the bar a little low here. Yes, Robinson is better than Harrison. It’s true that you would generally rather take a holding penalty than a sack, since a hold at least allows you to replay the down, but that doesn’t make a hold a meaningless play. One of Robinson’s holding calls wiped away a 76-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway. Another took a 35-yard Nick Chubb run off of the books. The bar for left tackles is high, but nobody in the modern NFL has been able to sustain a steady run of success at tackle while averaging what amounts to more than one holding penalty per week.

Could the holding penalties regress toward the mean? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t hold out much significant hope. Robinson racked up a league-high 31 holding calls from 2014-17, 10 more than any other offensive lineman, despite playing only 51 games. He was penalized once every 60 offensive snaps, which is a little better than his rate in 2018, but not by much.

On the other hand, again per STATS LLC tracking, Robinson allowed 23 sacks over that same four-year span. You would also count on that to regress toward the mean in 2019, too, and if Robinson doesn’t simultaneously cut his penalties way below his career rate, he’s a problem, not a solution.

Compounding all of this is that the Browns are reportedly paying Robinson a base salary of $7 million in 2019. The money isn’t critical to the Browns, given that they entered the offseason with more than $75 million in cap space, but the opportunity cost is. Relying on Robinson as their left tackle without pursuing a better long-term option is likely to slow the franchise’s development. Unless he takes a huge step forward and starts avoiding penalties, the Browns are going to be back in the market for a left tackle next offseason. Bringing back Robinson as a swing tackle and an option is one thing, but passing on a tackle who would have solved their problems in this year’s draft in order to go for another go-round with Robinson is a step backward.

If Robinson does take that step forward, this contract doesn’t offer the Browns any protection. A one-year deal means Robinson would be allowed to hit the market next offseason or require a lucrative franchise tag to stick around in Cleveland. If the Browns really thought he was their guy on the blindside, general manager John Dorsey needed to get extra unguaranteed years onto this deal to give the team the flexibility to keep Robinson around if he does have that breakout season. Instead, Robinson is a short-term stopgap being paid a premium in the hopes he turns into a long-term solution. There’s not much available on the market at left tackle, but this deal didn’t solve much for Cleveland.

Thursday, Feb. 7

The deal: Three years, $22.5 million with $9 million guaranteed
Grade: D+

The Cardinals made a series of signings before the free-agent period began. While adding Charles Clay and Brooks Reed on one-year deals were relatively low-risk acquisitions, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim took a much bigger swing at corner to try to find a partner for Patrick Peterson. With a thin cornerback market waiting in free agency, Arizona might have rationalized to itself that it needed to act immediately by adding Alford.

The problem, though, is that Alford was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He allowed eight touchdowns as Atlanta’s primary defender in coverage, on plays both short and long. The Falcons gave up 11 pass plays of 35 yards or more and Alford was in coverage on six of them, including four in one game against the Giants, who weren’t exactly the Greatest Show on Turf. Those four plays alone amounted to 200 passing yards for Eli Manning. Alford had holding penalties declined on two of those four catches and was flagged 12 times during the season, the seventh-highest total in the league.

Undersized corners tend to not age well, and with Alford turning 30 in November, it’s tough to count on much of a resurgence. The Cardinals clearly expect one, giving that they’re paying Alford $9 million for the 2019 season, with $13.5 million in unguaranteed salaries in 2020 and 2021 waiting if he returns to form. The Cards needed cornerback help, but after signing Alford, they might still need it, too.

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